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Interview: Col. Bill Mullen, Commanding Officer, Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG)

Lessons Learned and Implemented

The U.S. Marine Corps has a wide range of efforts – from full commands to individual online programs – to train, update, expand, and maintain warfighters to function in an increasingly complex and diverse world. As a result, the 21st century Marine, from the rawest recruit to the commandant, has language, cultural, and technology skills beyond the dreams of his predecessors. The Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG) provides advanced and standardized training in MAGTF operations, combined arms training, and unit readiness planning at the battalion and regiment levels and synchronizes doctrine and training standards to enhance combat preparation and the performance of Ground Combat Element (GCE) units in MAGTF operations.

The goal of this training is to significantly enhance the capabilities and effectiveness of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and all combat components of the Corps, from the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).

MCTOG’s commanding officer, Col. Bill Mullen, recently spoke with Defense senior writer J.R. Wilson about the development and evolution of Marine Corps training, including the current focus on ensuring all Marines, but especially leaders at all levels, are fully updated on lessons learned and new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) prior to each new deployment.


J.R. Wilson: What is MCTOG?

Col. Bill Mullen: The guiding program that lays out the format for what we do is the Operations Training and Tactics Program [OTTP]. It has three components:

  • First, train operations officers and chiefs and certify them as Operations Tactics Instructors [OTIs]. To do that, we run the tactical MAGTF integration course at Twentynine Palms [Marine base in the California desert]. Two years ago it was six weeks long, but due to short dwell time between deployments, we’ve reduced it to four weeks. It trains them in three mission areas: how to train units properly using a systems approach, how to properly plan operations, and how to execute operations in the current C2 [command and control] environment. Things have gotten a great deal more complicated in the past decade, so this has become a big piece of what we do at the regimental and battalion level, across the Corps ground element.
  • The second part of what we do is the Battle Staff Training [BST] program. Once the OTIs go back out to their units, they get them ready to come back to us for the BST and an exercise we run called Spartan Resolve, which currently is very Afghan-focused. We try to make that as close as possible to what they will face when they get into Afghanistan. Our most recent Spartan Resolve involved three different battalions at Camp Pendleton and one in Hawaii.

Another major exercise – Enhanced Mojave Viper [EMV] – is run by a different organization and is the last test for battalions before they head overseas, so we help them try to do better on it.

Regiments do not go to EMV, so we set up two different Spartan Resolve exercises, one to work through the bugs and the second as an assessment, which really is another set of eyes looking at the regimental staff.

  • The third piece of the OTTP, the hardest to get to, involves institutional support functions – reviewing or writing doctrine, updating training standards, integrating tactical lessons from Afghanistan. For instance, the infantry company ops [doctrine] was last done in 1978, but we hope to have a new version signed off on in a couple of months.


Is that the only one being updated?

We’re starting to work on the battalion publication now, which also was last done in 1978.

When things start moving fast, doctrine tends to get pushed off, but nobody was getting to it. We were established in 2007 and that was the first thing we picked off. But it took us until January 2011 to get the OTTP signed off as a Marine order. And it was quite a fight because a lot of folks didn’t think it was necessary, but the commandant had other ideas. The past commandant [Gen. James Conway] ordered it done and the new commandant [Gen. James Amos], when he took over [in the fall of 2010], became our biggest backer.


How large is MCTOG?

Altogether, MCTOG has about 150 personnel, roughly one-third government civilians or contractors. The remainder are mostly senior officers and NCOs. We only have one captain, for example, and the NCOs are mostly master sergeants and gunnys [gunnery sergeants].


When was the first Spartan Resolve?

Technically, October 2008, when the 3rd Marines were activated as a special purpose MAGTF to go to Afghanistan on fairly short notice. So we went out to Hawaii and ran an exercise to get them ready to go.

They were building a battle staff training program as part of our original charter and may have run one or two battalion level ops before that, but that was the first real one. Since then, we’ve hit every battalion going to Afghanistan – 7th, 2nd, 1st, 8th, 5th, and getting ready to do 6th Marines in September.

The original intent was the production of OTIs, who were intended to fix all problems across the GCE. We bring in the exercise, control the entire scenario, provide enablers to role-play, and so on, which the units can’t really do for themselves.


Do you have your own Red Force acting as the enemy in these exercises?

We have contractors operating as a threat cell, run by a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and a civilian/military operations cell, emulating interactions with the local population and how to deal with those on a non-kinetic nature – infrastructure repair, stability ops, etc. Both are devoted to generating friction, either through kinetic or non-kinetic enemy operations.

Both cells are only a few members each, but we have a staff of 30 to 40 involved in running the exercise – the conduct, not the faculty adviser teams.

Our effort is almost completely simulation, but we’ve also been involved with the Center for Cultural Awareness, which provides role-players to do key leader engagements for the regimental commander and his staff and adds a little extra complication for them. They have to figure out who they need to talk to and about what.


How do you train them for that?

They have to know not only who they are talking to, but understand what that person can or cannot do for them and the impact of that. We call it non-kinetic targeting, where they build a profile on the individual – who he knows, his background, his real influence  –  and develop a plan on what to talk to him about to get the best results.

Part of it is information from other people. When you go into a new area, you don’t know all that, so you try to get as much information in advance as possible, but you remain noncommittal when you first sit down with them and watch how others react to them. When someone enters a room and is ignored, that guy has no influence whatsoever. But if all conversation stops, that guy has influence. Until you figure out what he can or cannot do, you remain noncommittal.


One of the major cultural differences Americans face in Southwest Asia is the role of women in Muslim life. What training do Marines get on what can be a sensitive subject?

Women really did have influence, but it was all inside the home, which wasn’t visible to us. So we started putting together female engagement teams [FETs] and began to understand just what role Afghan women really had. We also found Afghan men were more willing to deal with our female engagement teams, almost treating them as a third sex. But how do you translate that to have a continuing impact once we transition?

In Iraq, we began training Iraqi women to work with the police at entry control points and it went over very well. I’m not sure how it will turn out in Afghanistan, but we need to do the same and it is even more important because there are large numbers of young widows who have to care for their families without a male head of household to do it for them.

The female engagement teams are women from all the services, and I think they are having a tremendous amount of success. It started in Iraq, although not referred to as FETs, to help search Iraqi women to make certain they weren’t men pretending to be women to smuggle things through entry points.

They are in uniform and armed; they look just like any other member of the military. And they are trained to respond to any problem.


What kind of training do they receive?

There are no women in Marine infantry regiments or battalions, but one of the things we replicate in our exercises is the direct fire-support unit, which does have women involved. But all our units in training are going into direct combat, which women are excluded from doing.

The FETs do go through similar sorts of training and are attached to combat units in the field, but not through the training we do at MCTOG.


Aside from differences in training male and female Marines, how does the training you provide differ between officers and enlisted and between senior and junior members of both?

The training conducted throughout preparation to deploy should be directed at all ranks, so we train officers and enlisted together in the MCTOG courses.

One thing we emphasize is you can have the best training and plans in the world, but it all can be thrown away by a junior officer or enlisted man who is having a bad day.

Those junior folks, who are out there on patrol every day, are the ones the locals see most, so it is important for young Americans to be properly trained to react well to foreign cultures, even if they don’t speak the same language.

One thing we emphasize to our junior folks, for example, is the Afghans don’t have to be trained to an American level; they just have to be better than the enemy.

If you take the time to explain these things to Marines of any rank, they understand. But it you don’t explain things to them in advance, their first instinctive reaction may create problems.

Speaking the local dialects – Pashto or Dari – is something they are picking up pretty quickly. We have specialists who receive special training in language, tactical site exploitation, and so on in every squad. We have found many of these go beyond our training to develop their language skills, talking to interpreters and to Afghans in the field.

The hardest part by far is information management and the compounding factor is integration: organizing all the incoming information, sifting through what is and is not important, then getting it to the decision-maker in time for him to make an informed decision. There is so much information coming in today, you could easily drown in it. You have people above pulling for information, people below sending it up, and so on. So you have to be value-added to the people below you while you feed the beast above and so on.


What are you doing at MCTOG to address the information issue?

A common comment in Iraq – and now Afghanistan – is information goes up, but nothing ever comes down.

When initially pulling a team together, you first have to get past the typical inward focus. One technique we use is the institution of a battle rhythm, a series of meetings that force you to pull in other folks, process information, establish human filters who are trusted members of the team. We have to sort all that out through the training exercises so they can get that out of the way.

When a unit comes back from deployment, people go on leave and there typically is a major changeover, with all the key players moving out, so you have to rebuild that kind of trust of and in the people around you.

When we run these exercises, we push the information at them, built out so they should know to whom they report, what information they report, etc. Then we review how well they did that – pass information properly, take time to do some analysis, etc. Then we report at the end on how that was done, both good and bad.

We use chat pretty extensively within the Combat Operations Center [COC], but people tend to get too focused on their chat windows – they can have half a dozen open at the same time – and that impacts situational awareness. So we get them to understand there are times when you have to say “stop,” get everyone’s attention, explain what information has just come in and what needs to be done with it.

We operate all the way down to the company, putting faculty advisers at the regiment, battalion, and company levels, which is where they really have to start pulling things together.

A lot of our training is focused on the individual Marine, out there every day collecting information. But if no one responds to that when they come back from patrol, they will stop collecting as much information.

So we explain to them how the whole information chain needs to be fed, how to properly resource everyone and make decisions on what has to happen.


You mentioned the impact of the current OPSTEMPO on pre-deployment efforts. How are you dealing with that, especially incorporating a decade of lessons learned?

We are squarely focused on lessons learned. We’re great at observation, but less so at adopting them. So we need to make sure all that is pushed back into the doctrine so these things are not forgotten. We slimmed the OTI training course down to four weeks, but also now work Saturdays and longer hours.

When we get out of OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom], we will return to six weeks, because even after Afghanistan, we will still have to train units to deploy. The only real change will be the exercises no longer will be fully focused on Afghanistan. In fact, in the course we run for OTIs, the final exercise has nothing to do with Afghanistan; the actual details are classified, but it’s an amphibious MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] landing for offense, defense, and stability operations. That is a core competency we have to make sure we maintain.

If we [Marines] lose our ability to do amphibious ops, then people will start asking why we need two land armies.


What is the Corps at large – and MCTOG in particular – doing to address those concerns?

We are very expeditionary; we don’t need landing or overflight rights or a big port to offload things. We win the first battle; the Army is the war-winner.

Even throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve still been sending out MEUs, one from the East Coast, one from the West, one in Okinawa. That has never changed.

We’re always looking for ways to improve. One we’re looking at hard now, with a high OPSTEMPO limiting our time and ability to change, is a more adult learning model, with discussion seminars, giving students more responsibility rather than just mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations.

I doubt we’ll ever be 100 percent on the mark, but even now I think we’re probably 95 percent.


What do you expect will happen to your operations once the Marines leave Afghanistan?

Post-OEF, the requirements will remain the same for command and control, for example. All indications on what we will be dealing with post-Afghanistan seem unlikely to change much for the next 10 to 15 years.

We try to maintain focus on all the changes that are happening, but the only things we teach the students are what we know for a fact what they will face once they get out and into their jobs. We want to make certain they are proficient on what they need to use now, not train them on things they may not be using.

Technology changes too fast; people are not even getting proficient in the systems we have now before new ones come out. We’re trying to put the brakes on that so people are at least 80 percent proficient; we’re not pushing for 100 percent. And that’s not just C2, but weapons, vehicles, etc. Every new system that comes online brings its own problems – who uses it, who maintains it, etc.


Do you work with the other services in finding ways to deal with that?

We have a sister organization in the Army – which was just renamed as the Mission Command Training Program – and the Navy comes in on our OTI course. We have very limited Air Force interaction, although we have had some participate in our exercises. The same with our international partners; we’ve participated in some of their exercises, as well.


What is your take on such things as mission command versus command and control or becoming too dependent on technology in the battlespace?

We make sure the redundant systems to C2 – computers, radios, what we used to do with “charts-and-darts” – remain available and properly used. As part of the final assessment exercise, we turn off all the systems in the COC to make sure they are keeping the old charts-and-darts up to date in case they lose power in the field.

Mission command is all part of understanding what is available and how to use it effectively. The biggest piece is the information management challenge, which we’re struggling with across all the forces. People are waiting for perfect information and removing the fog of war, but you also have to decide when and what is good enough to operate effectively.

The enemy also has a vote – for all our vaunted technology to remove the fog of war, they find ways to get around it.


How often do you conduct courses and exercises at MCTOG?

We run three courses a year, plus about five Spartan Resolves, which is the pattern we’re trying to establish for every year. Battalions and regiments go through this training prior to every deployment. It’s more about pulling units together as a team than it is individual training.


Do you also train Reserves?

We have worked with Reserves in the past, but have not had as much time for them unless they are mobilized to deploy. We are trying to develop a Reserve version, where those we train would go out and do their own training at Reserve units. But that is a very slow-moving project.

This interview was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...